( 19 )
Jiang Cheng is not new to night hunts, not anymore. He’s been training his cultivation since he was old enough to hold a practice sword. He accompanied their senior disciples as soon as he could fly on Sandu, and he led his first hunt when he was fifteen. He’s nineteen now, still very young, but he isn’t without experience.
He should be able to manage night hunts with ease.
But sometimes, a case is just… more draining than others. Sometimes they turn more complicated and you do some digging to find a way around the problem. Sometimes the problem is something to do with a human soul, with human experiences and human baggage, and you face uncomfortable truths and harsh realities… and it’s your responsibility to deal with it anyway.
This night hunt has turned out to be one of those.
Jiang Cheng dismisses the disciples as soon as they arrive home, telling them to rest and get medical attention if they need it. It’s not the first time that a night hunt took until morning, but it’s the first one in Jiang Cheng’s experience that he is well and truly tired, on top of other things.
It’s a testament to how bad it was that even Wei Wuxian is quiet.
Jiang Yanli is there to welcome them home, and Wei Wuxian heads straight into her arms, prompting a small, worried laugh from the woman when he hugs her just a bit too tightly.
“A-Xian! Are you alright?” she asks, rubbing his back, brows furrowed just slightly.
Wei Wuxian nods against her shoulder, sniffing. “I’m okay now, shijie.”
“Are you sure? Do you want some breakfast? Or maybe you should sleep first?”
“Get some sleep, Wei Wuxian.” Jiang Cheng orders. Wei Wuxian finally steps back from their sister and for once, he just nods.
He had pushed himself in that night hunt, Jiang Cheng knew. He’s the one in their group who knew how best to deal with resentful energy, but that didn’t mean he’s immune to the toll it takes to fight them. And that hunt was… Well, there had been a lot of resentment to tackle.
Wei Wuxian tells their sister that he’ll eat whatever she cooks for him later, then trudges towards his room.
Jiang Cheng lets his sister hug him too, and he hugs her back just as tight.
She cups his cheek. “A-Cheng, I’m sure you worked really hard on this one.”
He bows his head, nodding. “We had to, A-Jie.”
“I’m glad you’re home safe.” she says. “I’ll tell Father you’ll report later. You need to get some rest, too.”
“Thank you, A-Jie.” he musters up a smile.
He looks around at the people milling about, busy starting their day. He hopes to catch the familiar laugh, the tell-tale flutter of a fan, the usual cheerful call of his name, but he doesn’t find any of those.
“Is Huaisang still here?”
Huaisang had come down from Qinghe yesterday for their usual volunteer duties at the animal shelter. When Jiang Cheng got the call about the resentful spirit and had to prepare for the night hunt, Huaisang simply kissed him goodbye and told him to be safe, that he’ll see Jiang Cheng when he gets back, since he’s staying over at Lotus Pier for the weekend anyway.
Jiang Chengs struggles to reign in his disappointment. No. He shouldn’t expect too much-
Yanli seems to remember something. “A-Sang didn’t come home last night. Oh, don’t worry!” she says quickly when her brother immediately goes on alert. “He called! He stayed overnight at the shelter. He said he’s needed there. Something about one of the dogs going into labor?”
Jiang Cheng’s brows furrow in concern. “Peachy?”
“No, I mean Peachy. The dog. We knew she was due this week.”
Jiang Cheng fumbles for his phone. He hasn’t checked it in hours, maybe since the night prior, too focused on getting the job done.
Yanli smiles as she watches him. It always tugged at her heartstrings seeing how dedicated her brother has become with this volunteer job. She always worried that he’s being put under so much pressure by their parents, so it always gave her a degree of relief to know that he has other things that matter to him besides his duties and responsibilities to the sect and the family. And to have someone to share it all with, well, that gives Yanli some peace of mind about her brother.
She lays her hand on his arm, rubbing comfortingly. “He told me he wouldn’t be texting you because he didn’t want to distract you from your night hunt.”
“Oh.” Jiang Cheng says, eyeing his screen. His sister is right. No new messages. “So he’s still at the shelter?”
“Mm-hm.” she nods, and easily recognizes the furrow in her brother’s brow. “I’m sure he’ll come back soon. You know A-Sang, he must have overslept.”
“Yeah.” he says, but his frown doesn’t disappear.
Knowing very well that at this point she wouldn’t be able to persuade her brother to just go to his room and sleep, Yanli sighs, then loops her arm around his and leads him away. “Alright, let’s have someone drive you, then.”
When Jiang Cheng steps inside the little building, he is immediately greeted by the kindly middle-aged woman at the front desk.
“Good morning, Wanyin! A-Sang is still asleep in the back room.” she says, stirring quite the big mug of coffee. It’s got a picture of Mandu, their resident grumpy cat. A gift from Huaisang years ago.
(Jiang Cheng had to stop Nie Huaisang from replacing all the mugs in the pantry with a Grumpy Mandu mug after Huaisang finally won over the cat’s grudging affections. Huaisang settled for just giving them as presents to staff and other volunteers.)
He reaches over to pet the very same cat on the counter, who recognizes him and instantly draws closer at the attention. “Thanks, auntie. I heard it was a busy night?”
“Oh, yes, Peachy went into labor.”
“How did it go?”
“I wasn’t here, but apparently it was a difficult one.” she says with a sympathetic frown. “Poor thing. They had to call in the vet and monitor her closely, but she’s a fighter. She’s safe and so are the puppies. Your A-Sang was a big help, thank goodness he was here. No one else could come in and stay at such short notice. He watched over her the whole time.”
Jiang Cheng manages a smile. “I’m glad he was here.”
She looks him up and down, and that’s when Jiang Cheng realizes that he hasn’t changed, and that Sandu is still on his hip. She’s not a cultivator, but it’s hard to miss just where he’s been. “Were you in one of those night hunts, dear?”
He nods. “It went well too.”
“Thank you for keeping Yunmeng safe, Young Master Jiang.” she says, reaching out and patting his hand. Despite the more formal address, he feels the same kind of motherly affection as always. It made him miss Auntie Nie. Maybe that’s why Huaisang is so fond of the woman too. “Go and wake your boy up now so you can both get some proper rest. We’ll see you next week, or any time you feel like coming over.”
Jiang Cheng nods at her and then gives Mandu one last scratch before he heads to the back room. It’s a combination of a storage, staff room and workplace pantry. At this time of day, it’s empty, save for Nie Huaisang curled up asleep on the couch. Thankfully, he looks comfortable with enough pillows and a fluffy blanket.
Jiang Cheng sits on the edge of the couch. “A-Sang.” he calls, gentle, yawning. “Wake up.”
Huaisang groans, turning his head and burrowing his face in his pillow. “Mm, da-ge, five more minutes…”
He chuckles and places a hand on the other’s arm to nudge him. “Not your da-ge. C’mon. Let’s go home.”
“A-Cheng…?” Huaisang blinks awake slowly, then shoots up, looking confusedly around him. “A-Cheng!”
Jiang Cheng tries his best not to comment on the state of disarray that is his clothes and hair. “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” he greets back automatically, yawning, rubbing his eyes. “What’re you doing here?”
“Picking you up so you’ll stop hogging the staff’s couch to yourself.” he says as he starts running his fingers through Huaisang’s messy hair, which has fallen down from its usual half-bun.
It’s getting long, inches past his shoulders now. Huaisang says he’s growing it out, and Jiang Cheng has a feeling he’ll be breaking a lot of hearts in the process. Including Jiang Cheng’s.
“How’s Peachy?” he asks, though he already knows the answer.
“Peachy! Oh, poor Peachy really had the worst time last night!” Huaisang exclaims as he starts patting around the pillows and blankets for his hair tie. “We almost lost her, A-Cheng. But she powered through it because she’s a strong brave lady. We got four puppies! Well… hopefully they’re still okay. I crashed when the morning staff came.” He yawns again. “How was the night hunt?”
Jiang Cheng suppresses a sigh, gesturing for the other to turn around and scoot closer. Huaisang obeys, and Jiang Cheng starts braiding his hair. “It went okay. We all came home safe.”
Huaisang hums as he finds the hair tie and hands it to Jiang Cheng over his shoulder. “I can tell when you’re pretending to be okay, A-Cheng.”
“Don’t worry. I just need to get some sleep.” Jiang Cheng says, tying off the braid. Then he wraps his arms around Huaisang and pulls him close, dropping a kiss on his shoulder and then his cheek. “That’s why I came to get my favorite pillow.”
“Ah, and the truth comes out.” Nie Huaisang says, and giggles when Jiang Cheng nuzzles his face. But when he goes to kiss Huaisang’s lips, Huaisang lets out a squeak and turns his head away. “No, A-Cheng, I haven’t brushed my teeth! Ew!”
Jiang Cheng grumbles, but settles for another cheek kiss. “Fine, but you owe me one later.”
“Yes, Young Master Jiang.” he says sweetly, drops his own kiss on Jiang Cheng’s nose.
Jiang Cheng holds him tighter, burying his face in his shoulder and taking a deep breath. Nie Huaisang lets himself be hugged, knowing from experience that this is what Jiang Cheng needs after powering through something that left him tired and worn out.
“Let’s go home, A-Sang.” he mumbles.
Huaisang nods, patting the arms holding him. “Okay, A-Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng lets go of him slowly. After gathering himself, he stands up and takes the blanket to start folding.
“Let’s check on Peachy first, though. You need to check on Peachy.” Huaisang decrees as he puts on his shoes and checks his belongings. “She missed you.”
He nods, agreeing easily. He didn’t want to leave without seeing his girl, anyway.
He doesn’t want to play favorites, but Peachy is special. They found Peachy injured and barely breathing on the side of the road on a stormy night, and it took group effort and a long time to bring her back to full health. And while she’s a big girl – a husky – she’s one of the sweetest rescues in the shelter.
They leave the blanket and pillows neatly stacked on the couch and make their way to the whelping kennels hand in hand.
Peachy is nursing her four puppies, all of them fat, tiny, warm and full of energy. She perks up when she sees her guests.
“Hey, Peach.” Jiang Cheng greets softly as he kneels by her, petting her in place so she won’t try to stand and dislodge her little ones. New moms are still excitable like that, not knowing how to care for their babies yet. “Heard you had a rough night. Well. You and me both. Though I bet you’ve been a lot braver than me.”
Peachy whines, as if she knows exactly how spent and exhausted he feels. She tilts her head and nuzzles his hand, giving his fingers an affectionate lick.
He doesn’t know why, but that’s what it took to finally get him choked up, after the things he’d seen, the night he’d had. Above him, he feels Huaisang’s hands on his shoulders, rubbing softly.
Peachy whines again, biting softly at the edge of his jacket’s sleeve. It’s grounding. Slowly, he manages to center himself.
“Thanks, girl.” he says, smiling, voice breaking just slightly. “I’m dead on my feet so we gotta go now but we’ll see you again soon, okay? Be good.”
She nuzzles his fingers one last time before laying her head back on the kennel, but her tail still wags happily as she watches Jiang Cheng stand back up.
Nie Huaisang crouches down to pet her too. He fusses over the puppies and then at Peachy’s food and water bowl, just making sure she’s settled, then he lets Jiang Cheng pull him up and lead him out.
“A-Cheng.” he says softly as they make their way back to the car. “Are you really okay? You can talk to me about your night hunt, you know that.”
Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, considering, but ultimately he just shakes his head. “It was a resentful spirit, and we all know how those happen.” he reaches over to pull Nie Huaisang close, and Huaisang readily leans against him, accepting the easy affection. “This one has been through a lot. I think we all were just a bit shaken. But we managed, and we all came home alright.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Huaisang mumbles against his chest, knowing that sometimes, with Jiang Cheng, all he has to do is be there . Present.
“Thanks.” Jiang Cheng drops a kiss to his forehead, smiling against his hair. “I think I’ll be fine now.”